Another Side of Higher Ed: Chris L. Terry

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I am the Coordinator of Student Engagement and Culture at Columbia College Chicago. It’s a broad title because I do a variety of things, and love it. Last week, I saw scholarship students’ faces as they read about Fred Hampton’s murder for the first time in my Chicago African-American History discussion group; trained a group of peer mentors; and was in Grant Park at 4 a.m. on Friday, supervising the set up of tents and stages for the New Student Convocation.

There’s something different to do every day and it keeps me from being bored. The more that I see and do, the more that I can write about.

This position is the culmination of four years of work. I entered Columbia’s Fiction Writing MFA program in 2008, wanting to become a better writer and to find work that was more fulfilling than my old career editing make-up catalogues. I wasn’t sure what that work would be, but I wanted to use grad school to make my world bigger, to say “yes” to everything. I figured that the answers would present themselves. They did.

I posted a resume to Columbia’s campus job site, hoping to get work in the Fiction Writing office. Instead, Student Engagement contacted me about working as an assistant to the Director of African-American Cultural Affairs. It was perfect. I’d been writing a lot about my black/white mixed race identity and wanted to get to know myself better as a black man. Surely, this job would enrich me far more than checking the spelling of lipstick shades ever did.

Immediately, working in Student Engagement made me feel tapped into the world. I met a variety of students and participated in a million discussions about race, masculinity and relationships – all topics that helped my writing as I sorted out my own identity through stories.

At first I was scared. I’m pale, and was worried that people wondered why a white guy worked in the black office. My first week, my boss’s boss asked me if I was Greek, and I said, “No. I’m black and Irish.” Imagine my embarrassment when she said, “Chris, we know that. I meant, like, are you in a fraternity?”

That was my welcome. I was there. I was accepted.

I graduated in 2012, after spreading my thesis hours out over an extra year to keep my campus job. Shortly after, I was hired as staff. My first full-time job with benefits.

This job is in conversation with my writing, instead of making it feel like an after-hours secret life. That first year in Student Engagement quieted the internal voices that tell me I’m not black enough. It shook loose the thirty years of significant moments where I had to consider my identity, that became turning points in the stories that I write before work, after work, and that I can mull over out loud while on the clock.

Chris L. Terry has a Fiction Writing MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His debut novel Zero Fade will be released by Curbside Splendor on September 16, 2013. Visit www.chrislterry.com for more of his writing.

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